Discussing alcohol use with young people

Written by: Ian Macdonald | Published:
Please could you link to the most highly evidenced alcohol education programme for schools, talk ...

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How should we approach young people about alcohol use as part of PSHE education? Specialist Ian Macdonald offers some pointers, and signposts some new and free resources to help

Let’s start with a fact: we know that fewer young people are choosing to drink alcohol than ever before.
Statistics on alcohol in England published by the NHS this year show that only 38 per cent of 11 to 15-year-olds have ever consumed an alcoholic drink, the lowest figure since these surveys began.

To put it more positively, 62 per cent of 11 to 15s have chosen not to drink alcohol yet. These encouraging stats are part of a consistent trend that we have seen develop over a number of years, so it isn’t a flash in the pan.

However, we also know that those young people who do choose to drink are drinking more. There are regions of the country where the number of young drinkers is still quite high. According to the same statistics, of those young people who had reported being drunk in the last four weeks, 63 per cent had “deliberately tried to get drunk”.

That means we cannot become complacent about the support offered to young people – not just when developing their knowledge about alcohol use, but also their ability to make healthy life choices.

In the past, alcohol education has focused on providing information about alcohol to young people so they can make “informed” decisions. This was fine as a starting point, but the lifestyle choices made by young people are not solely informed by their knowledge and understanding on a certain topic. Very often, young people are fully aware of the physical effects of alcohol and other substances, but this knowledge falls short when they consider the social benefits of drinking, of being seen to drink, or of being drunk.

We therefore need to acknowledge that young people make these decisions based on the kudos and social status they may achieve as a result of their choice to drink alcohol when underage – and often this has very little to do with the physical effects that a traditional alcohol “education” programme may restrict itself to.

Research from Liverpool John Moores University has suggested that underage alcohol use may also be a means to an end, i.e. a way of getting that kudos and increased social status from peers by constructing their own identities around alcohol use (Atkinson et al, 2015).

So those potentially harmful decisions may be less about how alcohol makes an individual feel and more about the kudos they may gain from their peers by acting or being drunk in a social situation.

Social networking sites have played an undeniable role in changing the dynamic here. With a phone and a social network, young people can gain status with more than just their peers on a night out – the whole world can see them, so the potential for social gain (and embarrassment) is much greater than ever before.

But we shouldn’t just lay the blame at the door of social media. Instead, we should focus our energy on how we can challenge the changing role of alcohol as a part of young people’s identity both online and offline.

Armed with insight into the challenges and opportunities facing young people, we might think differently about how we approach alcohol education within both PSHE and non-formal education settings. Having provided the basic facts of what alcohol may do to the body, we should expand to cover social implications for that individual.

This approach is taken by Rise Above for Schools, Public Health England’s new bank of PSHE resources designed to support schools on a range of key issues for secondary-aged pupils.

The resources help pupils to think in more detail about the reasons why young people may choose to drink alcohol when in the presence of their peers. They also follow nationally recognised guidance from Public Health England, Mentor-ADEPIS and the PSHE Association.

In particular, the Up To You – Party Edition activity from Rise Above for Schools is a great way to explore this topic in a style familiar to young people.

In many ways, of course, alcohol and substance use have strong links to wider impact on self-esteem and emotional wellbeing. This is where we can apply the other resources from Rise Above for Schools to explore how similar skills are relevant across a variety of health topics and scenarios. Again, this fits in with recognised best practice around the development of life-skills in health education.

Finally, it’s also important to look at “social norms” during alcohol education. This means promoting models of positive behaviour, rather than the behaviour we want them to avoid.

Instead of focusing on the numbers of young people drinking, we should be focusing on the majority of those who choose not to drink – effectively normalising that behaviour.

It’s a good idea to model positive behaviour consistently as part of plenary activities. When modelling positive behaviour, you might use the statistics and national surveys mentioned earlier, or you can contact your local public health team to provide local data.

Mentor-ADEPIS is the national body supporting alcohol and drug education in schools. They have also produced some useful information on this which you can access online.

  • Ian Macdonald is a PSHE specialist and health education specialist, working with young people, public health professionals and commissioners to achieve positive health outcomes for young people.

Further information


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Please could you link to the most highly evidenced alcohol education programme for schools, talk about alcohol. It is available to schools via www.alcoholeducationtrust.org as a free downloadable workbook of 30 lessons, games films and activities for different ages and abilities. A paper copy can be ordered from kate@alcoholeducationtrust.org . The talk about alcohol programme is PSHE Association Quality Assured, awarded 3/3 by Mentor Adepis CAYT as above and selected by The Early Intervention Foundation as one of the best early intervention programmes for young people in its book. There is also an online learning zone for 12- 15 year olds for use in class www.talkaboutalcohol.com
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